Saturday, May 10, 2008

DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE (2008) d. Paolo Barzman

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It always seems that every few years, someone feels the urge to remake one of the classic thrillers of yesteryear. Most commonly, it is FRANKENSTEIN or DRACULA that see remakes, but just about all of the old horror classics have been retold, retooled or retread. DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is a tale that has seen more than half a dozen visitations on the Big Screen and even more in video form, made for television movies or even TV show adaptations. It is a compelling tale about the war within between the light and dark side of our souls. While Robert Louis Stevenson’s story may never really get old, the manner in which film makers present the tale is beginning to tire no matter how hard they try to update the tale, blend it with modern sensibilities and fashions or decorate it with current technology and trappings. The 2008 version of the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde yarn, starring Dougray Scott has some redeeming characteristics, but in the end it does not really take the myth in a new direction nor add another chapter to the canon.

DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is the tale of eminent physician Dr. Henry Jekyll, whose excursions into experimental biology have loosed a malevolent force on the city of Boston by the name of Edward Hyde. Dr. Jekyll soon becomes aware of evidence that suggests that he and Mr. Hyde may be the same person. Dr. Jekyll enlists the aid of an old friend, Gabe Utterson played by screen veteran Tom Skerritt, and Utterson calls in a favor from a young lawyer, Claire Wheaton, played by Krista Bridges. Miss Wheaton begins a nightmarish journey into the darkest corners of the soul to uncover the truth about the murders committed by Mr. Hyde, and whether Dr. Jekyll is truly innocent or guilty.

DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is a made-for-TV film to be broadcast on ION on May 17, but after brief reflection, you would never think it was a TV Movie. Its greatest strength is its slick, attractive appearance, very creative lighting schemes and engaging camera work. During the day, scenes shift from handsome city vistas made to look like Boston, mixed with actual exterior scenes shot in Boston, all of which are well composed and brightly lit. The night time exterior and interior scenes are even more compelling, often monochromatically lit with red, blue, green, violet or even silver gels. Add to that already exotic imagery, scenes that are carefully shaded and shadowed so as to mix moodiness with the afore-mentioned eerie colors and the atmospheric stage is set. There are some wonderfully chosen interior sets like a dramatic spiral staircase and some exterior alleys that drip with a sense of menace, all of which make DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE visually stunning at times. While this film is no KILL BABY, KILL or SUSPIRIA, there are times when it feels like the spirit of Mario Bava has been invoked or a nod is made to Dario Argento.

The other strength of this film is Dougray Scott. Playing any duel role is very difficult, and while Mr. Scott has a tendency to deliver somewhat understated performances, he works very hard to craft characters that are convincing. Mr. Scott’s Dr. Jekyll begins as stoic but tormented, and patiently descends into a maelstrom of emotional agony ending at suicidal resolve. Conversely, Scott’s Mr. Hyde is a blend of insouciant lethality and suavely sadistic indifference. While both portrayals are done with the hand holding down the throttle and Mr. Scott never quite explodes from the chains he carefully wraps around his performances, his are the best efforts in the film.

Despite these considerable strengths, most of DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE left me wondering when the film was really going to get rolling. It is likely that there are two reasons for this discrepancy between the DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE that worked and that which didn’t. The movie starts off as a subtle mix of medical thriller with horror undertones and stays that way for a while. After some time, the story genre shifts to a crime drama with the potential for romantic/horror traces. Over the last one-third of the film, it became a courtroom/legal drama and then it tried to slip that noose with a surprise horror ending. Not quite knowing what kind of story it wants to be is always a problem for any film, and this is no exception. In addition, the film starts off in the middle of Dr. Jekyll’s problems, is a bit disjointed as it tries to run in a non-linear vein, but by the end, the film goes back to a linear pattern and takes on some problems with predictability. Some of this is no doubt due to the well-traveled ground of a classic tale, but some of the predictability stems from a screenplay that just had its problems. Without a story that really fired my passions, I felt unengaged at best and sometimes even a little bored.

On top of story struggles, the other character portrayals were uninspired and terribly nondescript. Tom Skerritt mumbles his way through his part. While never a ball of fire ala Steve Railsback, whose performances are always enough to lift a person from a prone position, Mr. Skerritt seemed minimally interested in the character he was playing. Krista Bridges’ character of Claire Wheaton felt trivial at the start, shifted to unsympathetic, stayed fairly bland for the balance of the film and it was only in the denouement, as if she felt like she had better come out of the gate at last that some energy seemed to animate her face and spirit. Then there is Mrs. Poole played by Danette MacKay. Her character was probably intended to be dark, icy and ominous, but just like Beth Grant’s portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher in THE HOUSE OF USHER, the effect was the be mechanical at best, at worst she was no more lively than a marble column. At times, the silent and menacing character can be a valuable film commodity, but you have to cast someone who can radiate a sense of threat through their eyes and their movements. Danette MacKay just adds another layer of woodenness to a cast that already acted like they spent too much time in a lumber room.

Finally, it is not often that I find a score/soundtrack that does not fit a film, but this one was a quandary. For one, much of the early part of the score sounded much like it had been written for an introspective science fiction film, for it had a nouveau, ambient quality that felt as modern as the cell phones and medical equipment in DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE looked. It is very likely that this modernist musical accompaniment was meant to assist in the updating of this old tale to contemporary times. It didn’t work; rather it was distracting because it felt like it should have been part of SPACE 1999 or some other talky, reflective SF story. Only when the narrative shifted to the courtroom did the score settle into a style that fit the dramatic nature of those scenes. As an experiment, I firmly believe that Dr. Jekyll would have approved of the bold attempt, but as we’ve seen so many times before, Dr. Jekyll’s experiments did not turn out too well, and the musical mutiny in DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE fails too.

The extras menu on DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is extremely thin but it has sixteen minute interview with Dougray Scott called “A Man of Many Faces”. It is certainly an interesting interview with a thoughtful man who cares about his craft and has a surprisingly interesting list of film credits. Dougray Scott is not a household name and many people probably remember him as the man who could have been Wolverine in X-MEN. His interview for DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE clearly shows him to be an intelligent and fair spoken actor.

TV Movies do not usually impress anyone with their visuals, but can often have starring performances by experienced character actors that are smile-inducing and the stories are often tight, clean and straight-forward. DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is exactly the opposite. If you are looking for a film that will delight the eyes, this has what you want. Just don’t expect too much from the story and most of the cast because that is not where the focus went. It’s too bad actually. You don’t get many films that look this good today and had the rest of the production been up to the task, this could have been a real winner.

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